I, Claudius

Rank: B+
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Winter, 2012

Author Name: Robert Graves

Review: With I, Claudius, modern readers can enjoy a book that resembles classical literature without the tortuous pace of actual classical history. If 300 taught modern kids important events of the Second Persian Invasion of Ancient Greece (as well as what is Sparta), I, Claudius provides an insightful look into the political theater of early Imperial Rome. Sounds interesting, no?

I, Claudius is, simply, a fictional autobiography ostensibly written by the fourth emperor of Rome, though in actuality researched and imagined by English poet/classicist Robert Graves. In the book, Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (“Claudius”) recounts his beginnings as a member of the Julio-Claudian family, perennially the outcast due to his epileptic seizures, stutter, ticks, and other afflictions. Though thought of as an idiot or fool by nearly all members of his family, particularly grandpa Augustus (the benevolent emperor) and grandma Livia (the murderously cunning brains behind the throne), Claudius grows up smart as a whip and pursues the life of a scholar since no one in the family permits him to attain any important political post. However, none of Claudius’s scholarly work, such as his Etruscan histories (fun fact: Claudius is understood to be the last known person able to read Etruscan, which remains unintelligible to historians today), is noticed by anyone, and Claudius is happy to live the life of an unappreciated scholar.

As the so-called idiot of the imperial family, Claudius learns to survive the many purges, murders, and intrigues that inevitably befall nearly every member of his family, all of whom are rivals to one another. Slowly, all the good people around him die out, none by natural causes, and Claudius, who is the paragon of an honest and honorable Roman Republican (at least, according to his own account), experiences life under the benevolent, yet dangerous, rule of grandpa Augustus and his grandma Livia; the paranoid and tyrannical reign of uncle Tiberius; and finally the madness of nephew Caligula. As Claudius bumbles, more or less unscathed, into each new imperial era, the principle villains all grow to understand the depths of Claudius’s simple genius.

Ultimately, after finally being given semi-important positions of power in Caligula’s ludicrous government (including a role as a bouncer at Caligula’s impromptu brothel), and after being subjected to the terrors of an insane autocrat, Claudius is paradoxically appointed emperor upon Caligula’s long-deserved assassination. Despite being a staunch believer in the Republic, Claudius is named emperor by the palace guards. As he is carried away on the shoulders of the palace guards, Claudius ashamedly admits to his excitement at the prospect of having an entire empire read his long-ignored scholarship, which is a strange way to end the story about the crowning of perhaps the most powerful person in the world (second only to the Han Emperor). But actually, given Claudius’s eccentricities and honest character, it’s probably the most appropriate way to end the book. So for now, Claudius meets a happy end as the most unlikely person to become ruler of a nation, like Jimmy Carter 1,936 years later.

Interestingly, Claudius, in his many visits to the libraries of Rome, discusses the importance of accurate historiography with two leading Roman historians. Eschewing the style utilized by Livy, who prefers writing out lengthy but undocumented speeches and dialogue for dramatic effect, Claudius states his idea that histories should be based on primary sources without recourse to made up quotes. Ironically, I, Claudius consists entirely of fabricated dialogue (particularly his discussion at the library), due in no small part to the fact that Claudius’s actual autobiography, which spanned eight volumes, did not survive. But without Graves’s fabrication, which is derived from popular rumor, conjecture, or Graves’s own imagination (e.g. the many assassinations attributed to Livia), there would be no book about Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus even a tenth as engrossing as I, Claudius.

Of course, if you don’t like historical fiction with an emphasis on history, go watch the BBC version of I, Claudius, which starred the great Derek Jacobi stuttering his way across a sound stage. And if you don’t like movies based on a work of historical fiction, the Hunger Games movie is coming out soon, yes indeed it is. Goodbye, world.

2 Responses to “I, Claudius”

  1. David J. Peterson says:

    As a language person, something I’m curious about is how the language is rendered in this book. Is it just standard British English from the time period (early 20th century), or is it kind of “antiquated” English? Is there any Latin at all?

    • John Yap says:

      It’s written in 1930s British English and was a best-seller in its day. Graves imagines Claudius writing his memoir in Ancient Greek (the literary language at the time), so he includes a few standalone Latin phrases here and there with a translation for his Greek reader. Also, Graves uses contemporary place names. For example, Lugdunum (Claudius’s birthplace) is referred to as Lyons, making it easier to geographically place locations.

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